On October 3, 1971, Ellen Connett crossed the border town of Bongaon with Gordon Slaven, a 20-year-old law clerk from London and arrived at a Catholic mission 20 miles inside Bangladesh. Dreadful things had happened, the priests reported. There had been indiscriminate killings by the Pakistani military, food was scarce and prices skyrocketed.
Just two months ago sitting in the safety of her home in London, she watched the horror of the war, the misery of the Bengalis and wondered what she could do to help. She and her husband Paul Connett decided to join Action Bangladesh, a group campaigning for a political, rather than a military settlement of the Bengalis' struggle for independence. Soon they became more concerned with the sufferings of the Bengalis and joined another organisation called Operation Omega with the aim of getting food, clothing and medicine to the suffering Bengalis. She flew to India. Her job was to organise things on the Calcutta side, informing other relief agencies of their activities, inquiring about the availability and cost of supplies and transport in India, and investigating the border to see what would be the best areas to cross. No trip to cross the border was planned for her. But after some time, she decided to go in to help the victims of the war, convinced that she would return in a few days.
Early morning on October 4th, as she was getting ready to go out to talk to locals about the relief operation, she heard a knock on her door. Outside stood an armed Pakistani soldier. “Hello sister,” he said. For a second she thought that he had mistaken her for a nun. Then cold sanity returned to her. Nuns don't wear jeans!
A military lorry carrying a machine gun took Gordon and her to Jessore where they were charged with illegal entry into East Pakistan and sentenced to two years of imprisonment. She almost cried when they took away her wedding ring and wondered if she would ever be reunited with Paul. Her main fear was for Paul who had been very outspoken about Bangladesh and criticised the government of Pakistan. In jail the food was terrible and she was losing a lot of weight fast. The only thing she looked forward to was marking her “calendar”. On a piece of cloth she embroidered the months and days of the week, sewing a cross by each day as it went by. And death, both the possibility and the reality, was woven by war into everyday life.
Paul arrived in Calcutta in September and they had spent a little time together before he went into Bangladesh to investigate supply routes for Action Bangladesh and take photographs of the Muktibahini and atrocities of the Pakistani military. “I saw eight-year-olds carrying four year olds,” says Paul. “I saw a little girl, tears streaming down her face, she wanted to cry and stop but she had to keep walking. We walked for two days and two nights and then we got on a boat and went for two more days and nights, and we reached a village that was destroyed by all the shelling and bombing and we saw smoke rising in the distance. I captured these images.” Then over the Pakistan radio, he heard that two Operation Omega workers were arrested, and one of them was a woman. He immediately knew who she was. With that he returned to Calcutta, then England and then to the State Department in the United States for help. “I was worried, and angry at the same time,” Paul says via email. Among other things it meant that I would not be able to speak out on what I had seen in Bangladesh as I had hoped. I knew that until Ellen was released I would not be able to speak out or campaign without fear of reprisal an her. Fortunately we only had to wait two months - but it was a very worrying two months.” On December 4th, Ellen Connett was released and escorted back into Calcutta by an Indian major. When they returned to New York, she told him she was pregnant. She had found out while was in prison. They called the new born Peter William Mujib.
Before they came to Bangladesh, they had worked with expatriate Bengalis to drum up support and raise awareness about the genocide. “One thing I remember distinctly is that every night we listened to Tagore songs,” says Paul. “We ran an advertisement in the front page of the Times of London signed by writers, distinguished people and MPs. It said: Don't use the excuse of an 'internal problem' of Pakistan---the death of so many people cannot be an internal problem.” That was published on the same day the House of Commons was having a debate on the issue.” Then they started campaigning against all the countries that were giving aid to Pakistan. They had 12 demonstrations in 6 days. “We sent a delegation of 75 people organised by Manju Chowdhury to Paris to lobby the World Bank not to give aid to Pakistan,” says Paul. On August 1, they organised a rally in Trafalgar Square where more than 20 thousand people gathered to show support for the victims. All the Bengali restaurants in England closed down that day so employees could attend the rally. It worked. Within a few months, two hundred and twenty MPs of the British parliament called for the recognition of Bangladesh.
The Liberation War Museum on October 5, 2013 honoured Ellen Connett and Paul Connett for their sacrifices for the war. They gave the museum many letters, news articles and photographs from the liberation war which will be shown to the public soon.
Their commitment to Bangladesh did not end with the victory in 1971. They came back to Bangladesh in 1996 to help the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association close an incinerator they wanted to build in Khulna. “They didn't call it an incinerator; they called it a power station. But this power station was going to take waste from New York City,” says Paul. Currently both of them are working as activists for environmental issues. They have stopped 300 incinerators from being built around the globe.
Looking back after so many years, Paul says, “Some countries were given their freedom by the British. But you have earned your freedom with blood, tears and pain. Therefore you should not waste it.” And Ellen has this to say: “This country is too beautiful not to flourish. We wish you the best.”
Paul started writing a book some time ago about his experience during the war. “I was going to call it the Accidental Activist,” says Paul who retired as a professor of environmental chemistry and toxicology at St. Lawrence University. “It's from a john Lennon song that says, 'Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.' And that's the story of our lives. None of this was premeditated. It just happened.”
To drum up support for the victims of the war, Paul Allen was instrumental in organising a rally in Trafalgar square in London where more than 20 thousand people gathered. Photo courtesy: Liberation War Museum